Some of the once-biggest names in the chain restaurant world are no longer with us
Howard Johnson's, All-Star Cafe, and 13 Other Chains That Failed
Even though there were only 10 locations of the Planet Hollywood-owned All-Star Café in its late '90s-heyday, odds are you knew about this chain, especially if you were a kid during the decade. Sports icons such as Andre Agassi, Joe Montana, Ken Griffey Jr., and Shaq all invested in the project, and some appeared in commercials for it. It opened in prime locations across the country, including New York City's Times Square and Walt Disney World in Orlando. The chain was equal parts gift shop, memorabilia store, and restaurant, but it never quite had the same appeal as similar theme restaurants like Planet Hollywood itself or the Hard Rock Café. The last All-Star, located in Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports, closed in 2007.
Horn & Hardart
The automat is a defunct restaurant concept, but in its day it was a reliable way to get a quick and tasty meal. Individual sandwiches, salads, pies, and cakes were visible behind tiny glass doors. Insert some nickels into the slot, the door would open, and the dish would be yours. Horn and Hardart, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1888, was the undisputed king of the automat during its golden years from the 1920s through the 1950s, with more than 150 locations in Philadelphia and more than 50 in New York. Unfortunately, with the rise of fast food in the 1960s and ‘70s, the chain took a major hit, and the final location, on 42nd Street and Third Avenue in New York, closed in 1991.
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Founded in 1957, Gino’s was the very first chain to combine fast food and sports. The brainchild of NFL Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti, the chain was a huge hit, and featured Dom DeLuise in its commercials. By 1972 there were more than 330 outlets across the country, but 10 years later Marriott bought the chain and merged it with Roy Rogers.
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A classic New York city chain, the first Beefsteak Charlie’s opened in 1910, and its flagship location on 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue was a huge hit, serving its specialty steak sandwich to generations of sports enthusiasts (it had a horse racing theme). In 1976, restaurateur Larry Ellman renamed his Steak & Brew chain Beefsteak Charlie’s, apparently after realizing that the name had never been trademarked, and by 1984 there were more than 60 locations all along the East Coast, buoyed by an all-you-could-eat salad bar and unlimited beer, wine, and sangria. In 1987, the chain was acquired by Bombay Palace Restaurants, and when that group filed for bankruptcy in 1989, only 35 locations were still open, and over the next 15 years the remaining restaurants dwindled down to zero.
This Salem, Oregon chain was once the largest Oregon-based restaurant chain, with more than 50 locations in the western United States at its peak in the early 1980s. With most units located near freeways, this chain was similar to Denny’s, open 24 hours and taking a “coffee shop” approach. Starting in 1984, however, the chain began selling off its locations (more than half to Denny’s), and by 1989 the last of the restaurants had been sold.
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Steak and Ale
This brainchild of Norman Brinker, who also gave us Jack in the Box and Chili’s, didn’t do quite as well as his other inventions. Launched in Dallas in 1966, it introduced America to the self-service salad bar and did gangbusters in its first years (selling an 8-ounce filet for $1.95 didn’t hurt), and by 1976, when he sold the chain to Pillsbury, there were 109 restaurants in 24 states. This was the beginning of a major boom in fast-casual dining, however, and the chain just couldn’t keep up. Metromedia eventually purchased the brand, and shut down the last 50 locations in 2009. The rights to the chain were bought by the parent company of Bennigan's last year, and a triumphant return is reportedly in the works.
No discussion of the history of American dining is complete without a major acknowledgement of the role that Childs played in developing the restaurant as we know it. When the first Childs opened in 1889 in downtown New York, restaurants were either high-end affairs like Delmonico’s, or more everyman lunch counters and oyster houses. Childs, with its emphasis on low-price, quality food, intelligent design, hygiene, good service, and expansion, set the stage for modern dining. Childs was one of the first national dining chains, and by the time it reached its peak in the 1930s, there were about 125 locations in dozens of markets throughout the country. Poor management (including an ill-conceived vegetarian push from co-founder William Childs) reduced that number to 53 by 1950, and in 1960 it was swallowed by the Riese Organization, which also owns Dunkin' Donuts, KFC, Pizza Hut, T.G.I. Friday's, and Houlihan's, and was completely phased out.
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This early chain, which began in Minneapolis in 1926 as a blatant White Castle knock-off (right down to the fake turrets), opened more than 120 locations before White Castle sued them in the early 1930s. White Tower settled by paying White Castle $82,000 and changing their look to Art Deco. The chain stuck around for a while longer, peaking at 230 locations in the 1950s, before folks began to move away from the urban areas where they were located. The last one shut down in Toledo in 2004.
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The first Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant opened in downtown Minneapolis in 1975 and was one of the breakout restaurants of the year, pulling in $2 million. Founders Marno McDermott and Max McGee’s creation had basically no competition in the Midwest, and by 1986 a whopping 237 locations had been opened, with 42 opening in 1985 alone. From there, unfortunately, it was all downhill. Attempts at expanding to New York City, New England, and the South failed, and increased competition, combined with baby boomers aging out of the chain's target demongraphic and a decline in alcohol consumption, spelled its doom. Locations fell to 144 by 2002, and a month after Chi-Chi's filed for bankruptcy in 2003, green onions served at a Pittsburgh-area outpost set off the largest hepatitis-A outbreak in American history, sickening 660 and killing at least four. The remaining 65 restaurants closed the following year, and today the brand exists in the United States only as a salsa product owned by Hormel, which licensed their name. Oddly enough, there are a dozen Chi-Chi’s still open in Europe, nine of them in Belgium.
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This chain of hot dog stands was founded in Miami Beach in 1956 by the Pearlman family, and at its peak there were more than 400 locations nationwide. The South Florida fixture, whose trademark was hot dogs steamed in beer, was so successful, in fact, that the company went public and bought Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1969. The chain was purchased by Wienerwald in 1978, but overextended itself and filed for bankruptcy a few years later.
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Kenny Rogers Roasters
If you best remember Kenny Rogers Roasters from a classic Seinfeld episode, you’re not alone. This chain, which the singer launched in 1991 along with KFC mogul John Y. Brown, expanded to 425 locations, but a country singer’s name and a focus on rotisserie chicken didn’t exactly make it stand out in an already crowded field, and it went bankrupt in 1998 after being bought by Nathan’s. While there’s only one U.S. outpost still in business, in Ontario, California, it’s doing surprisingly well in Asia, where there are more than 100 locations.
Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl affixed her name to this fried chicken chain, which was launched by Nashville attorney John Jay Hooker in 1966. The company went public in 1968, and over the course of the next few years more than 500 locations opened and thousands more were franchised out, although a lot of those franchises never saw the light of day. While rival KFC grew organically and focused on quality and consistency, so many outposts of Minnie Pearl’s opened that no two chicken recipes were the same, and people simply stopped going. Investors sued the company after they were forced to redo their 1968 taxes to show a loss of more than $1 million, and the company shut down shortly thereafter.
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Howard Johnson’s is synonymous with 1950s and '60s dining. It was launched by Howard Johnson himself in the 1920s as a soda fountain and lunch counter, and by 1954 there were 400 outposts in 32 states. One of the first major restaurant chains (with a menu created by none other than Jacques Pepin), it went public in 1961 with 605 restaurants and 88 motor lodges, both of which were major fixtures dotting the new American highway system that experienced monumental growth during this time. The company peaked in in the mid-1970s, but business fell off after that. The business model of serving pre-made high-quality food in traditional dining rooms lost popularity amid the boom in fast food chains like McDonald’s, and after many changes in ownership over the years, only one Howard Johnson's restaurant remains, in Lake George, New York.
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When Sam Battistone and Newell F. Bohnett decided to open a restaurant in Santa Barbara in 1957, they just combined Sam’s first name with Bohnett’s last name, and Sambo’s it was. Little did they realize just how many people would take offense at the presumed connection to the politically incorrect children’s book Little Black Sambo, especially after the restaurants were decorated with scenes from the book. Regardless of the association, the restaurant was a huge success, and there were 1,117 locations in operation at its peak in the early 1980s. The company’s finances began to crumble just as it became a lightning rod for its insensitive name, and its collapse was epic. In 1983, 618 locations were renamed Season's Friendly Eating, and soon after some outposts were sold to Denny’s and the rest simply shut down. Today there’s only one Sambo’s still around, in Santa Barbara, California.
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In 1958, a technological wonder of a chain restaurant opened, with the capacity to pump out burgers faster than even McDonald’s could: 800 per hour, via a conveyer broiler. It seemed like the perfect formula for success, and Burger Chef’s optimistic parent company, General Equipment, opened 1,200 outposts by 1972, making it second only to McDonald’s 1,600. They also pioneered the concept of selling a child-oriented meal of a small burger, fries, drink, dessert, and small toy in 1973 (they called it a "Fun Meal"; McDonald’s called it a "Happy Meal" when they "borrowed" the idea six years later). But it was overexpansion that eventually did the company in; in 1981, the company was sold to Hardee’s, never to be heard from again.
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